At the molten core of Alehandro Iñárritu's magisterial comedy, Keaton is an erupting, centripetal force. He is volcanic, spewing genius and madness across the screen over the course of a two day period in the dank heart of Broadway. The dreams, pretensions, and delusions of the desperate thespian rise as a symphonic echoing of the madness and yearning of us all. Bringing to life Shakespeare’s adage, Birdman is the lyrical proof that it is upon “a stage” that all of us strut.
The plot in short: Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, an actor who is battling his ex-SuperHero persona, Birdman; attempting to atone for years as a Hollywood cartoon by directing and starring in a Broadway play adapted from a Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
The film takes place almost entirely within the confines of the St. James Theatre and a bar nearby. While this approach could be claustrophobic, fear not. With the gigantic talent of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñarritu has filmed a tour-de-force whose style will be copied for centuries hence - a riveting, giddy, careening visual trip through the innards of the theatre and the worm hole of Keaton’s madness, all apparently shot in One Continuous Take.
The camera, magnetically propelled by Keaton or whomever he encounters, yields a dizzying stream of consciousness that leaves you breathless. The only conceptual predecessor that comes to mind, although on a much lazier and purely structural scale, is Slacker - where the story is created by the camera's shift, through a succession of conversations, from one participant to the next. Of course there’s the famous sequence in Scorsese’s Good Fellas, but Iñarritu pushes that groove into another dimension.
Underscoring the action is a phenomenal solo drum score by Antonio Sanchez. The drummer himself sometimes appears in cameos on the street or the theater as the score jacks the general jumpiness of the action into schizier realms. Toss in a little Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Ravel and John Adams to instantly shift the mood into classical theatricality, and you’re pretty much sonically aligned with Riggan’s reality.
Keaton’s performance is a thing of wonder, at turns comedic, poignant, or terrifying. He is a man on the verge, a man aware that he is risking all and probably doomed to lose. Every muscle in his face is teased into compliance to manifest his inner turmoil. Playing an arch-narcissist, he bounces off an absolutely brilliant cast. His fellow thespians display different shades of the stereotypical attributes of actors. Naomi Watts is a febrile first-timer on Broadway, Ed Norton a perennially disruptive egomaniac in a death match with his director, Andrea Riseborough is Riggan’s diva-esque girlfriend. Zach Galifinakis is, as always, hysterically funny as the freaked out producer; Amy Ryan plays his empathetic ex-wife; Lindsay Duncan the poisonous Times critic who swears to destroy this Hollywood charlatan masquerading as a stage actor; and Emma Stone, in a startling performance, plays his snotty, provocative daughter Sam, fresh out of rehab and full of fury.
The last character, but not the least, is the spirit of Birdman, whose disembodied voice (Keaton rechanneling Batman:) chatters and chides poor Riggan, already bedeviled by self-doubt, throughout his prep for opening night, attempting to lure him back to his former glory as Birdman star. (And here Iñárritu gets his jabs in at a corrupt Hollywood endlessly pandering to the most infantile of our urges.) Birdman finally takes form in the third act and almost succeeds in convincing Riggan that the world can still be his golden rodent.
Ah, the fertile trope of the Birdman. For this viewer, one of the funniest scenes in cinema (glimpsed in the trailer) is the formerly high-flying Riggan, accidentally locked out of the theatre mid-performance and now naked but for his white jockey shorts, trying to make his way through the throngs on Broadway, mincing like a plucked chicken.
Birdman is indeed like a flying dream, the sort where you keep bumping your head on wires strung overhead as you attempt to clear the clouds. And like a dream, it raises pivotal questions. You see Riggan fly and you see him levitate - but, as you walk out of the theater, you will need to answer for yourself how Iñárittu intends this - as a subjective glimpse of his madness? As a parody of Hollywood? As a metaphor for the drives of the soul, for the impulse to transcend or to manifest one’s true powers, one’s authentic self? As allusion to the liberating effects of art?
There are many parallels to Fellini’s masterpiece 8 1/2, one of the greatest films ever conceived to expose the tortured soul of an aging artist and his search for meaning amidst the ruckus and melee of fame. But Birdman ascends both to new heights and deeper vales of pathos. There is an emotive lynchpin to the frenzy here, contained within a line Carver gave his main character (Riggan’s role in the play.) 'And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.’ This is a fairly universal desire and a deeply poignant line. It is a feeling known by every actor who ever uttered a word on stage and it is, as well, the very real need that Riggan, as negligent father, finally recognizes in regard to his daughter Sam.
There is a bright red cherry on top of the cake of this marvelously mad movie - a wonderfully comedic, ironic twist to the finale and one which will not be spoiled here. But I will say this - the last shot itself poses a question - about reality, about transcendence, about authenticity, about myth, about the power of art. As I drifted into sleep the night I saw Birdman, I felt like I’d experienced the performance of a brilliant symphony - the more I thought about this, I realized it felt like Stravinsky. And the symphony - I guess it was The Firebird.